Children who need pre-school most are missing out

By Pauline Rose, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report

Young children who are marginalized by poverty or other factors stand to benefit most from early childhood care and education – but across the world, they are the ones who have least access to it. Offering disadvantaged children better health care, nutrition and pre-schooling is one of the most urgent priorities on the Education for All agenda – and the focus of this year’s Education for All Global Action Week, from April 22 to April 28.

In time for Global Action Week, the EFA Global Monitoring Report team has released a new policy paper that focuses on ways of making sure that all children get a chance to attend pre-school. The majority of the world’s young children are excluded from pre-school – and those who do attend are disproportionately from wealthy, urban families.

In 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, 157 million children were enrolled in pre-primary education programmes. This is an increase of 40% since 1999 – but the gross enrolment ratio is still only 46%. In other words, more than half of the world’s children don’t get a chance to improve the linguistic, cognitive and social skills that are the foundations for lifelong learning. (In a second blog post for Global Action Week, we’ll look at some striking evidence that equitable access to high quality pre-schooling markedly improves young children’s readiness to succeed in primary school.)

A large proportion of children excluded from pre-school are from poor and/or rural families. A look at pre-school enrolment in three countries – illustrated by new data analysis by the GMR team for the 2012 Report presented in the tree diagrams here – shows how much those patterns of disadvantage can vary.

Pre-school participation varies significantly within countries

Percentage of children aged 36 to 59 months who are attending pre-primary education, by characteristic

A child in Bangladesh has very little chance of attending pre-school: whether urban or rural, rich or poor, male or female, only around one in six attend. In Thailand, by contrast, 61% of 3- to 4-year-olds attend pre-school, although there is a distinct wealth bias, with 74% of children from rich households enrolled compared with 54% of poor children.

In Nigeria, such disparities are particularly wide. Girls and boys from rich households, whether living in urban or rural areas of Nigeria, have a similar chance of going to school as a child in Thailand. By contrast, girls and boys from poor Nigerian households are on a par with children in Bangladesh.

One reason children from urban areas and wealthier households are more likely to participate in pre-primary education is that they have greater access to private pre-schools that charge fees – and in many countries and regions, a large proportion of pre-schools are private. Globally, 31% of enrolment is in private pre-schools. In the Arab States, 79% of enrolment is in private pre-schools.

Given that overall enrolment remains low, could expansion occur through the private sector? It seems unlikely. Private pre-schools are often priced out of reach of the poorest households, whose children are those least likely to be enrolled. In urban areas of India’s Andhra Pradesh state, for example, almost all children from rich households attend private pre-schools, compared with around one-third among the poorest households.

In our policy paper we describe the action needed in six core areas, including expanding pre-school facilities and making sure they are affordable, coordinating pre-school activities with wider early childhood interventions, and identifying appropriate ways to link pre-schools with primary schools. Legislation that makes pre-school compulsory can increase enrolment if it is complemented with measures that expand supply.

High quality early childhood education targeted at children from poor households can go a long way to reducing inequality. But if access is expanded without addressing the barriers that poor parents face – especially the cost of enrolment and attendance and the limited availability of early childhood facilities near home – then the deep inequalities that already exist will only be perpetuated.

Follow Pauline Rose on Twitter: @Pauline_RoseGMR



  1. Thank you for shining the light on the almost 400 million children under six.globally who are born genius – -let us all release the genius within them

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